Cattle producers ponder dry conditions

Good hayland is important to many North Dakota cattle producers who count on healthy pastures to grow healthy cattle. A problem with pastureland can quickly take a toll on a cattle herd. Alternative feed can be costly too.

With that in mind, cattle producers are keenly aware that 2017 proved to be a very dry year in the state’s cattle country. Hoped for winter snows have not occurred and very little snowpack, necessary to replenish soil moisture in pastureland and elsewhere, is on the landscape.

The lack of moisture to encourage pasture growth this spring is a growing concern for cattle growers.

“We are hopeful we’ll get that moisture we need to start that grass,” said Julie Ellingson, North Dakota Stockman’s Association executive vice-president. “We hope and pray because it is a critical ingredient to our operation. Certainly we don’t have too much water coming off a pretty extreme drought last year.”

Long-range weather outlooks covering March through May, issued by the Climate Prediction Center, give some reason for optimism but not much. The forecast indicates the possibility of a “greater than normal” chance of precipitation for the period. However, because March and April historically produces minimal rainfall anyway, the possibility of exceeding normal precipitation totals may not be exactly enough moisture to make a difference in spring pasture growth.

According to the National Weather Service rainfall of at least three inches over normal is needed to bring soil moisture content up to a “normal” range. Given the current trend in precipitation that amount is considered very unlikely to occur in the coming months.

North Dakota cattle raisers are not alone in keeping an eye on the sky in the hope that meaningful precipitation arrives soon, in any form, rain or snow. Much of the country is experiencing similarly dry conditions.

“There are many dry spots across the country,” noted Ellingson. “This could be a situation that impacts a large portion of the United States.”

While many cattle growers in 2017 sold off inventory or moved their herds out of the area where feed was more abundant, it doesn’t appear to have significantly impacted the overall population of cattle in the state. According to the Federal Agriculture Department there were 1.86 million cattle and calves in North Dakota on Jan. 1, 2018, an increase of two percent from the previous year.

“A big portion of cattle sales has been in response to the drought,” countered Ellingson. “It has varied across the state. A significant portion of North Dakota got a reprieve with some late season moisture last year. Some didn’t and are in a more dire situation.”

Of note is that producers impacted by the drought have additional funding available to them under the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees and Farm-raised Fish Program and the Livestock Indemnity Program. A previous funding cap of $20 million was removed by Congress and signed into law retroactive to Jan. 1, 2017. It is estimated that producers applied for more than $40 million dollars through the programs last year.